A bright yellow pickup truck is parked on the third floor of a downtown Minneapolis office building, and to a stranger it doesn’t fit into the maze of cubicles that stretch as far as the eye can see. “Ryan Lumber and Coal Co.,” reads the lettering on the truck. “Everything to Build Anything.”
Pat Ryan stops to admire the truck and explain how it does fit on the floor – a constant reminder of the 76-year-old company’s heritage, culture and pledge to build the best products and provide the best services for its customers.
The mission statement today is “Building Lasting Relationships,” and Ryan sees important connections between those words and the ones that his grandfather and uncle used to describe their promise in 1938, when they paid $18,000 for a Hibbing lumber company.
“A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t,” said Ryan, the third-generation president and chief executive officer of Ryan Companies. “My grandfather used to say, ‘Take care of your customer and your customer will take care of you,’ and it’s the same today. We have 800 employees, and all of them know and live our mission.”
The mission has worked for Ryan the company, which has bounced back strongly from the 2008 recession and will exceed $1 billion in revenue this year from dozens of projects generated in 10 offices around the country. Ryan’s presence is especially strong – and visible – in the Twin Cities area, where projects range from a $400 million mixed-use development near the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis to a St. Paul Saints park in downtown St. Paul.
And the mission has worked for Ryan the leader, who didn’t intend to work in the family business when he was growing up in a Hibbing family of seven children. His dad was in insurance and estate planning and his mom managed the household. “We had a great middle-class life,” said Ryan, who played football and was on the ski team. “You’d get on a bike on Saturday morning and you just had to be home in time for dinner.”
Ryan was the second of four siblings to enroll at St. Thomas, where he majored in finance, was president of the Tiger Club and met his wife, Ann, a St. Catherine student. He took a year after graduating in 1975 to be a “ski bum” in Aspen, Colo., before returning to Minnesota to look for work. He had two offers – $15,000 to sell insurance or $8,500 to work in real estate for Coldwell Banker (now CBRE) – and took the latter, “much to the chagrin of my dad!”
His first deal was a 310-square-foot, month-to-month lease in an Edina office building. He stayed with the firm for seven years, earned a law degree from William Mitchell and saw his career change one day in 1983 at lunch with his cousin, Jim, who was running the Minneapolis office of Ryan.
“Jim asked me, ‘Why don’t you come to work for us?’ I was grateful, but I had a big enough ego to say I couldn’t go to work for a company that had my name on the door and not be an owner. Jim said, ‘We’ll give it five years and if it works, we’ll be partners.’ We agreed, shook hands and I am still here 31 years later.”
At the time, Ryan Companies had annual revenue of $18 million. Pat focused on development, Jim ran projects as president and Tim Gray, Jim’s roommate from Notre Dame, was chief financial officer (and today is chairman). “We complemented each other,” Pat said, and by 1989 he was a partner and president.
He learned the value of nurturing close relationships with clients such as Target, for which Ryan has built more than 200 stores and its downtown Minneapolis headquarter towers. He also learned the importance of honoring commitments and loves to tell the story about a 1950s project in which two of his uncles were building a National Food store.
“The building started to settle,” he said. “They could have thrown in the towel and filed for bankruptcy, but that wasn’t the right thing to do. They went across the street, bought property and built the store all over again – at their own expense. It took time to dig out of that hole, but that was their character.
“When the economy is strong and everything runs smoothly, everybody is happy. When there are bumps in the road, true character surfaces. Will you stand behind your commitment? Will you pay your bills? Will you do the right thing?”
Ryan Companies has become more visible with large projects, earning honors such as developer of the year from the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties in 2007. Ryan calls the projects BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – and finds the company is well suited for them because of its role as builder, designer, developer, financier and real estate manager.
“One project dovetails into another,” he said. “Big projects are fun, but our bread and butter is still the $20 million project for long-time customers.”
Gray attributes Ryan’s success to his knowledge of the industry, his commitment to clients and his presence with them. “He understands what they need and how we can satisfy those needs,” Gray said. “He’s very personable, engaging and strong at communication.”
Mike Ryan, director of architecture and engineering at Ryan and Pat’s son, believes that his father’s greatest strength is “a clear priority structure: God, family, company and community. To be able to carry that off, and treat the company as a family as well as a business, is exceptional.”
Ryan went through a rough stretch in 2009, when his business partner Jim died of cancer and the company was dealing with the recession. Pat took over for his cousin and found he didn’t have time to grieve.
“I immersed myself in the business because we had to survive and we had to grow,” he said. “There was a cost to pay for my family, but they understood it. I found a safe respite in Mass. There was not a point in the day when I felt more comfortable and at peace than 7 a.m. Mass at St. Olaf.”
He also remained active in outside causes, including Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which he calls “the most significant project ever undertaken by this company.” He is a founder of the Minneapolis school and employs eight students who earn their tuition through work at the company.
“Where else can you have a greater positive impact on a generation of young people?” he asked. “Everybody here got involved. Look at the outcomes – kids who never would have had the opportunity to go to college are in college today because of Cristo Rey.”
Another important initiative is the Spring Point Project, which seeks to find a cure for diabetes. The Ryans’ daughter Mo, now 25, a nurse and the youngest of their five children, was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 9. Her parents created and helped to fund Spring Point, which has a research facility in New Richmond, Wis.
“Diabetes is almost becoming an epidemic in this country, and the cost is beyond most people’s means even if you have good health insurance,” Ryan said. “I want to find a cure to allow Mo and thousands of others to live a normal life, and a longer life.”
Whatever his pursuit, personal or business, Ryan always has had one fundamental goal.
“Always strive to be the best,” he said. “You don’t have to be the biggest or the fastest, but you should always want to be the best.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.